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Jody Sperling - Time Lapse DanceJody Sperling is a dancer, choreographer and dance scholar. She is the founder and Artistic Director of Time Lapse Dance. This is Jody's blog.
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Archive for the ‘Process’ Category

Paper Dance

I’ve always been into paper. When I was a kid someone gave me an origami book and within one weekend I made every crane, mushroom, dinosaur, tulip, nun, mask, etc. pictured in it. On Tuesday evening at the New Museum, I picked up this little gem: “Folding Architecture: Spatial, Structural and Organizational Diagrams” by Sophia Vyzoviti. Since then I haven’t been able to stop making paper sculptures.

So why the obsession with paper? “The paperfold is a dynamic artefact, unstable and evolving. It bares the traces of the activity that brings it into being: scores, creases or incisions drawn in the surface of the paper.”(p.9) These words about paper folding clearly relate to dance. Dance generates dynamic spatial trace forms that are fleetingly visible. However “unstable” paper art is, it’s an order of magnitude more concrete than choreography.

A single sheet of paper may be sliced open, folded, curled, wrapped in on itself, tangled, braided or wound, in ways that suggest bodily movement. The plane of the paper abstracts spatial relations, makes them visible. My special niche in dance–working with silk after the style of the great Loie Fuller–does a similar thing. My silk “prosthetic” costuming amplifies every action and exposes its planar dynamics.

All this is pretty heady, but truthfully I’m being guided by instinct and compulsion. It’s so satisfying to be able to make in just few minutes–out of a single sheet of scrap paper–something that is a tangible (if not indelible) marker of gestural action.

I know this relates to the new choreography that is stewing in me now. Cutting the paper multiplies it’s planes so that instead of one “dancer” I have a whole corp de ballet to interweave. In ways I don’t fully understand, this paper exploration is helping me imagine solutions for spatial problems that I will eventually visualize with moving bodies and swirling silk.

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Reflections on 10 years of Time Lapse Dancing

Preparing for our 10th-anniversary season (Feb 19-21 at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center), has put me in a retrospective frame of mind. Of course I’m excited about the program’s two premieres, but I’m also psyched about revisiting some older rep. I decided to interweave two dances–the trio A Leg Up (2007) and my solo Cheap (1999)–which, although made years apart, were both inspired by early films of variety dancers. It’s been fun splicing together alternating scenes and revamping my decade-old tricks. We’re also bringing back condensed versions of Ghosts and Bang for the Buck, both from 2008. But alas, we can’t bring back everything. My favorite saying about dance (courtesy of the late Richard Bull) is: “Here today, gone today.” Our dances may be gone, but fortunately we’ve got a lot of nice souvenirs. Here are a few from the digital scrapbook, 1999-2009.

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How do you write down choreography?

Example of "Joyous Movement" in Labanotation

As a choreographer, the number one question I get asked is: “How do you write down a dance?” It’s surprising to me how often this comes up. In itself, the question reveals a a literary way of thinking about choreography, as something that can be written. It’s also akin to the question my actor-friend is frequently subject to: “How do you remember your lines?” While there are notational systems for dance (eg. Labanotation), they are extremely complex and too cumbersome for “everyday” use. Labanotation certainly has uses, mainly as a tool for those recording and reconstructing master-works (visit the Dance Notation Bureau), but this is not how choreographers generally “write” their dances.

When you say “write” a dance, does it mean: 1) How do I make choreography up? 2) How I teach choreography to dancers? or 3) How do I document choreography for posterity? I hear all of these things.

my notes on aerial choreography

The way I start to make a dance is to build “vocabulary,” i.e. steps or movements. (See  Vocabulary Test post) For example, for “Ghosts” some recurring moves are 1/2 Umbrella, Disc, Pac-Man, Herding, Dervish, etc.. Naming the moves help us both to clarify the shape of the action and to remember it later. Sometimes I have fun making a movement cheat-sheet, matching names with my squiggly drawings. The second phase of choreography is creating movement sequences that correspond to a structure, whether musical, conceptual or narrative. Sometimes I’ll write down the sequences, but very often I do not.

Whatever notes I have in my purple-and-orange book serve only to jog my memory, but would be completely meaningless to anyone else, except maybe the original cast. My scribblings are not “writing” and do not express the choreography, even if they help me indicate it. When it comes down to it, fundamentally, dancing is NOT writing. It is, like an oral tradition, passed down body to body. Choreography is often generated communally. My dancers contribute to “vocabulary building” — you could say we are developing a common “language,” but that is perhaps a linguistically-biased way of thinking.

Choreography resides in the dancers’ bodies. And it lives there, exerting influence via muscle memory, for years after the original performance. For this reason, reviving a work with the original cast can be surprisingly quick — an entirely different experience from mounting the same work on new bodies. It’s in teaching a new generation the “vocabulary” that you realize all the things you didn’t “write” down. All the nuances of expression, idiosyncrasies have to be learned from scratch, re-invented, not just remembered.

So how do you record all these nuances? With video, of course. So that is probably the easiest and truest answer to this choreographer’s FAQ. Video. Duh!

more to come on this topic . . .

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Forms of “Forms of Dilemma”

A few weeks ago, I saw a shared program with the choreographers Rebecca Stenn and Ben Munisteri. Each artist allowed the other to “re-mix” dances made for his or her own company. Then each re-mixed the others’ re-mix. It was fascinating exercise, seeing such thematic variations spun out in sequence. The evening proved how infinite are the possibilities of dance-making.

Choreography means making decisions. As a dance takes shape, I always have mixed feelings — excitement for the new work, of course, but also a sense of loss for all the possible dances I could have made in its place. (I especially miss the one that I had to describe with great detail in funding proposals a year in advance of its making.)

I usually console myself for the loss of un-actualized choreography (i.e. the alternate assemblages of material or all the cool moves that just don’t fit in) with “there’s always next time.” For my new piece, Forms of Dilemma, I’m letting myself make “next time” part of the process.

I just spent the past two weeks in a creative residency at Vassar College, working on version “A” of Forms of Dilemma. For this incarnation, I set the movement to Grieg’s outrageously melodic Peer Gynt Suite.

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Interview with Gaby Mervis

Monkey House intern Gaby Mervis talking with Jody Sperling. This interview originally appeared on the Monkey House blog.

GM: How and/or why did you start choreographing?

JS: I’ve always loved dancing and I can’t imagine being a dancer without making dances. My first choreography was for our high school musicals (including “Kiss Me Kate”). My first semester in college I founded a dance troupe.

GM: How do you record your choreography?

JS: Of course, video is key . . . BUT as far as notes goes . . . The first thing is that I give names to all the moves. It’s important in the process that we all agree on the same names for the steps — and I do sometimes offer “naming rights” to the dancers! I sometimes make a vocabulary “key” (eg. correspond name to sketch) and then write out the sequence of moves of the dance, along with sketches for spatial orientation. If the work is musically based, I’ll write out the timing as well.

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Time-Lapse Philosophy

People always ask me, “Why Time Lapse Dance?” A time-lapse is a trick of photography (and I do love tricks) that allows you to see the shape of change over time. An action that takes days or weeks to complete in real time, is compressed in a time-lapse film so that you can see, all in one moment, a flower unfurling or a skyscraper shooting into the air.

It’s this trajectory between past and present that preoccupies me. I believe that history is always acting through our bodies, often unconsciously. Our actions, our physical habits and our dance moves are influenced by tradition. Even when we are making movement up “from scratch” or just “free-styling” on the dance floor, we are really re-combining and assimilating movements that have been passed down to us through the ages.

I believe that in order to truly innovate we have to recognize the historical forces that are impelling us into motion. If you don’t know where you’ve been, how can you chart a path in a new direction?

Time Lapse Dance aims to forge an imaginative connection between past and present.

This film of the Franconetti Sisters tickled me. The dancers are so cheerful and guileless as they show off their moves: a can-can kick, a cartwheel, a split. The simplicity of the tricks only lends pleasure in exhibitionism.

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